The 2022 FIFA World Cup Final was simultaneously billed as a heavyweight bout between Argentina and France (two of the world’s most iconic and successful soccer-playing nations) and Kylian Mbappé and Lionel Messi (two of the best players to ever set foot on a pitch). And the match certainly lived up to its billing — even if it took more than an hour to find its footing as an all-time classic.
The game’s roller-coaster ride lifted Argentina early, as La Albiceleste was dominant in the first half — it won the expected goals (xG) battle by a whopping 1.49 (including one penalty shot) to 0.00, according to StatsBomb.1 After just 36 minutes, Argentina found itself up 2-0 against a French team that couldn’t find a single first-half shot,2 let alone a first-half goal. The situation was so grim for Les Bleus that manager Didier Deschamps decided to make two first-half substitutions — Randal Kolo Muani for Ousmane Dembélé, and Marcus Thuram for Olivier Giroud — in the 41st minute, apparently not trusting that his team could make it to halftime without sustaining further damage.
For Argentina, the opening 45 minutes were magnificent. After Messi converted a penalty in the 23rd minute — something he’s weirdly struggled with in his career — he made an audacious pass from midfield to Julián Álvarez, who quickly sprung a sprinting Alexis Mac Allister, who found Ángel Di María3 arriving at the back left post to make it 2-0 in the 36th minute. France was rattled; Argentina was in dream land. It looked like the titanic showdown would be a massive letdown.
The second half was a different story, though it took some time for that story to develop. Kolo Muani and Thuram gave France more flexibility up top, allowing Mbappé to drift into more central areas on the pitch.4 Kolo Muani was able to get open in the 68th minute to register France’s first shot of the match, while Thuram made the second-most progressive passes for France, despite playing just 80 minutes.
If the subs supplied the spark, it was Mbappé who (eventually) lit Lusail Stadium ablaze. After a relatively pedestrian opening 70 minutes, during which he attempted zero shots (!!!), the French maestro took over. He scored a penalty in the 80th minute to put France back within touching distance before scoring one of the greatest goals in World Cup history5 to knot things up at 2-2 just 96 seconds later. In less than two minutes, Argentina had gone from dreaming of the eventual victory parade through Buenos Aires to fighting for their World Cup lives. That’s what happens when you get punched in the mouth — twice — by the only player on Earth who breathes the same rare air as Messi.
Of course, Messi was still on the pitch. The same Messi who made and received the most progressive passes on the day. The same Messi who, at 35 years old, is still capable of terrorizing the best defenders in world soccer. The same Messi whose legacy — for better or worse — probably hinged on winning this particular soccer match. So when Messi scored in the 108th minute, it felt as if the Soccer Gods had finally had their say. It would be Messi and Argentina’s day to shine, and Mbappé and France would have to wait another four years; there would be no repeat.
But the Gods are fickle, aren’t they? To make things interesting — as if they weren’t already — Argentina conceded a second penalty with less than two minutes remaining in the second half of extra time. Up stepped Mbappé, and suddenly the score was level again, this time at 3-3. In the cruelest6 scenario possible, the 2022 World Cup would be decided on penalties.
Lucky for Messi and Argentina, goalkeeper Emiliano Martínez is one of the finest penalty-shot stoppers in the world — mind games and all.7 Martínez stopped Kingsley Coman’s shot — France’s second — and did enough to put Aurélien Tchouaméni off on France’s third. In a satisfying bit of symmetry, it was Gonzalo Montiel — whose handball in the 116th minute resulted in Mbappé’s hat-trick goal from the penalty spot — who tucked away the winning penalty in the bottom left corner of Hugo Llloris’s goal.
And so, finally, Argentina hoisted its third World Cup trophy, and Messi got his seat at the head of a table that includes the likes of Diego Maradona and Pelé. He also got the Golden Ball, awarded to the tournament’s best player, but something tells us he doesn’t care all that much about that one. For Messi, Qatar was about a win for his team or bust. And what a win it ended up being.